Over a decades-long career as a Northfield Musical Theater director and co-founder, Myrna Johnson solidified her status as a pioneer in the local arts scene.

The city is marking her service this week, dedicating Tuesday as Myrna Johnson Day in Northfield. An ice cream social for Johnson, now 91, is scheduled from 630 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Northfield Arts Guild Theater, 411 Third St. W.

“I feel very honored,” Johnson said. “Very, very honored.”

Johnson, a 2010 Living Treasure Award of Northfield recipient, was a founding member of the Northfield Arts Guild. She has been described as a major reason for its growth and development of the first-of-its-kind organization in the state.

When Johnson moved to Northfield in the late 1950s, she soon realized there was no community theater, something she viewed as necessary.

“We needed a performance place, so I thought that was a good place,” she said.

“The drama,” she said of what she enjoys about the arts. “I knew that the only way that I could be with the theater would be to establish the theater.”

Johnson, along with Sue Shepard, Marie Sathrum and Dick Cantwell, founded their own company, Northfield Musical Theater in 1974, described as “a semi-professional troupe” that eventually became a foundational pillar of Northfield Arts Guild. She served as the Arts Guild’s artistic director from 1959 until she retired in 1993. Over the course of her career, she directed 134 plays and musicals for the Guild. She has played the organ, and directed festival skits, pageants and the choir at Bethel Lutheran Church in Northfield, later teaching courses in theater and film history at the Senior Center and Cannon Valley Elder Collegium.

In 1985, the newly completed Arts Guild Theater addition was named in her honor.

Johnson said Northfield has meant “everything to me.”

“It has meant that I could be in art, in arts, all this time,” she said.

“It’s a good community.”

She was recognized with the Fliehr Award in 2009, considered a lifetime achievement award that recognizes distinguished service to Minnesota Community Theater.

Johnson has taught courses on the American Musical Theatre for the Elder Collegium and the Senior Center.

Johnson, who was born in Osakis, graduated from high school in 1946 and is a 1950 Concordia University graduate. She taught in Crookston and Hawley for brief stints before moving to Northfield with her husband, St. Olaf band director Miles Johnson, in fall 1957.

They have three children who followed the family’s music path: Sarah, a music therapist; Sigurd, director of athletic bands and percussion at North Dakota State University; and Tor, a Minneapolis-based director.

Miles died in 2004 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

“I did,” she said of her loving directing plays. “It was good. I did a lot of it. But I enjoyed it.”

Susan Hvistendahl, who has written about Johnson, spoke highly of her work and her personally.

“She’s just a very kind, thoughtful person,” Hvistendahl said. “I enjoyed talking with her.”

“She has a family that just absolutely adores her.”

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115.

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